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"Marley and Me" *** (119 minutes)

Thursday December 18, 2008

"Marley" is a dog whose owner is John Grogan-the "me", played affectionately by Owen Wilson. Judging by the trailers you'd think this is your typical goofy Hollywood dog/pet film. However, the screenplay by talented writers Scott Frank ("The Lookout" , "Out of Sight", & "Minority Report") & Don Roos ("The Opposite of Sex") have taken Grogan's memoirs/novel and fashioned a tale that is much much more. Director David Frankel ("The Devil Wears Prada") has nicely packaged the first 15 years of Grogan's marriage around Marley's chaotic behavior. More a statement on commitment and marriage than a running commentary on owning an out of control animal, the humor tends to be more controlled the further on the film goes, and, no surprise, the tears will well up as you realize that nothing last forever-no matter how light hearted things are presented in the beginning. However, don't think that your emotions will be in total shambles at the end. This isn't an independent film, folks. The real star in this one is Wilson who gives a wonderful performance and the chemistry is just right with Jennifer Aniston throughout. Add in nice supporting roles by veteran actor, Alan Arkin as Wilson's boss, and Eric Dane as Wilson's philandering friend and co-worker and you have a very pleasing mix of good acting, script, and bad-dog. I might mention an interesting cameo by Kathleen Turner who hasn't done a significant live screen role since 1999's "The Virgin Suicides". There is a point in her single scene as a dog trainer that reminded me of her sexy scene with William Hurt in 1981's brilliant "Body Heat"-but in a perversely different way. (I won't spoil it for you here-but keep this in mind after you see it. Times have certainly changed for Ms. Turner.) My main beef is the length. Although 15 years might need a couple of hours to cover, a bit of editing might have tightened the story that goes on a tad longer than it should. However, overall, this is a nice holiday movie to take in-especially if you own a canine!

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"- Revisited

Wednesday December 17, 2008

I've been known to take in a film multiple times. Some people I know, don't like to see films more than once saying something like, "I know the plot. What's the point?" I like to answer that, for me, sometimes a film improves immeasurable upon repeated viewings. Actually knowing a plot allows me to focus on subtle nuances I may have initially missed the first time around. It could have been the acting, an image, a sound-something I missed or felt that wasn't present in my mind after the lights came on. And sometimes, how I felt about the film is changed-despite the familiarity of the plot lines. I might have been in a bad mood; something else occupying my mind and thoughts may have clouded my judgment that day (I always said that someday I might revisit "Juno" just for this purpose). I have especially found that there is something new and special to behold when seeing films again that I particularly enjoyed. Case in point: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button". Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed Fincher's epic tale, initially giving it 3 1/2 stars (see below). However, I am now ready to modify this to a solid 4 stars after screening it again 15 days later. What I missed on the second go-around was how simply the tale was told, how matter of fact was the narrative and, how profound the message was behind the words and pictures. And Brad Pitt, through facial expressions and manner of speech was so beautifully understated as the main character who lived his life in reverse without questioning his fate in the end. It's a bravura performance that didn't hit me the same way the first time. Certainly the best role and acting he has ever done. I was completely overwhelmed and moved the second time around that also allowed me to marvel even more in the set design and technology that created the amazing images on the screen. And I was able to concentrate on the incredible score by Alexandre Desplat which appropriately understated the action. Hitting on universal themes of life and time, everyone will relate to the journey each character takes. That being said, I have placed this on my list of the best films this year. And if you have a chance, see it more than once and let me know if you agree that it gets better and better each time. Nationwide release is in 3 days.

"The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008)" ** (103 minutes)

Thursday December 11, 2008

I took in this preview for one reason, and one reason only: strictly as a guilty pleasure. Those familiar with the classic 1951 original sci-fi version by Robert Wise starring Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal (listed on AFI's list of the 200 top classic movies of all time and their top 10 science fiction list) should not come to this one expecting to hear spaceman Klaatu say those immortal words to Gort, his trusty armored robot : "KLAATU BARADA NIKTO!" No, what we have here is your typical watered down Hollywood special effects laden remake of the original thinking man's flick. Rennie has been replaced with that one note monotoned thespian Keanu Reeves (who actually is well suited in the spaceman role), while Jennifer Connelly is in the Neal role as the Harvard scientist recruited by the Government to investigate the sphere that has landed in Central Park (changed from the original D.C. locale). Also changed is the prime motive for all the otherworldly goings on: Klaatu warning our globe that we will be doomed (by him) if we continue our environmental self-destruction of the planet vs. the original film's reason being our incessant violence against each other. Also present is Will Smith's son, Jaden ("The Pursuit of Happyness") who is Jennifer's step-son, and Kathy Bates, who must have needed the money, completely miscast as The Defense Minister acting on behalf of the President who is hidden away during the crisis. Although the special effects are top notch, there is very little else to recommend-especially if the original masterpiece has held a special place in your heart and memory.

"Doubt" *** (104 minutes)

Wednesday December 3, 2008

SHEEE'S BAAAAAAAAACK!!! Meryl Streep, that is, in writer/director John Patrick Shanley's adaptation of his Pulitzer/Tony award winning play. Shanley burst onto the scene in 1987 when he wrote "Moonstruck". But his record as a director is not as sparkling, directing the mediocre "Joe Versus the Volcano" in 1990. Eight years later, he's back directing his own award winning play. This 2 1/2 star movie is elevated to a 3 based on Streep's riveting, and sure to be Oscar nominated, portrayal of Sister Aloysius Beauvier, who is a Principal at a 1964 Bronx Catholic school. Kind of a cross between Hitler and the Wicked Witch of the East, Meryl sinks her fangs into a role that will have you shaking in your boots even though you are seated far from the action. It seems Sister Beauvier is out to get Father Flynn (the always superb Phillip Seymour Hoffman) when she perceives that there was hanky panky going on with the school's lone African-American student after being informed by naive teacher Sister James (Amy Adams) that the student had alcohol on his breath after his meeting with Father Flynn. But is there anything REALLY going on here-or is it a misinterpretation and/or overreaction? Hence the title and subject of this piece. I never saw the play but knowing its origin leads me to believe that it probably lends itself better by being on the stage instead of the screen as the action tends to be stilted and claustrophobic. The joy in this one comes from the confrontations between Hoffman and Streep, as well as a fantastic supporting role by Viola Davis who is sure to be AA nominated as the student's mother. You may be debating whether or not a moral wrong is at the center of the film. But in the end, will you care?

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" *** 1/2 (167 minutes)

Tuesday December 2, 2008

Screenwriter Eric Roth hit a grand slam right out of the box with his initial outing when he penned 1994's smash fantasy "Forest Gump"-winning an Oscar in the process. He followed this success with 1998's "The Horse Whisperer", 1999's "The Insider" (Oscar nominated), 2001's "Ali", and 2005's "Munich" (also Oscar nominated). He's been in a mini-slump lately with "The Good Shepard" & "Lucky You" but he seems to have come out of this period with flying colors after adapting the general idea behind F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story about the birth of an 80 year old man (Brad Pitt) who actually ages backwards. Director David Fincher ("Seven", "Fight Club", "Panic Room", "Zodiac") has lovingly created this tale bestowing fantastic production values to cover this story that spans the years 1918-2005. Using Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop, we meet a dying woman (an utterly fantastic Cate Blanchett) holed up in a New Orleans hospital while her daughter (Julia Ormand) reads a diary written by her mother's old friend. Here the narrative is told through flashbacks as the ominous storm is approaching. Much of this tale will remind you of Roth's 1994 masterpiece: the fantasy and sentimentality are abundant-as are the incredible effects used to display Pitt as he begins his life as a wrinkled invalid only to "age" backwards into, well, Brad Pitt. In fact, the feat of convincingly showing, at the appropriate point in the film, both Pitt and Blanchett half their real ages is as startling as the ET-like effects or the old woman makeup. Going in, I thought that the CGI would overwhelm the storytelling to such a degree as to be a distraction that would be hard to overcome. However, I was pleasantly surprised when I got caught up in the proceedings and then started to ponder the overall themes of love, life and death, and how fleeting it all is, long after the credits rolled. The supporting cast is nothing short of superb, including a delicious role by the great Tilda Swinton who plays a bored sophisticate with whom Benjamin meets in Murmansk and from whom he learns about love and desire. Also, Taraji Penda Henson (accumulating an impressive body of work, appearing in "Hustle & Flow", "Four Brothers", & "Talk To Me") is wonderful as the black woman who cares for baby Brad after he is left on a nursing home doorstep. The score by Alexander Desplat never intrudes and is always appropriate to the action. Look for multiple Oscar noms for this "curious" tale of Hollywood magic that opens nationwide on Christmas Day.

"Australia" *** 1/2 (165 minutes)

Thursday November 20, 2008

Off to another AFI Silver Theater members-only preview for one of this year's most highly anticipated Christmas season releases: Baz Luhrmann's glorious epic homage to Australia and the cinema. What you have here folks are enough motifs to please most any cinemaphile. I mean you got your western; you got your war film; you got your political statement on the ill treatment of the Aboriginals; you got your fantasy; you got your romance; you got your nod to a couple of Hollywood's most cherish masterpieces ("Wizard of Oz" & Gone With the Wind" to name but a few); you got your adventure; you got your luscious cinematography & score; you got your . . . well-you get the picture. In my opinion, Australian film directors and their films are among the best in history. Baz himself has produced 3 other critically acclaimed winners (1994's "Strictly Ballroom", 1996 "William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet", & 2001's "Moulin Rouge"). Now comes this wonderful conglomeration that, despite it's length, will never bore and is likely to surprise on multiple levels. The story (Baz wrote the script with Stuart Beattie from Baz's idea) begins in 1939 and is narrated by Mullah (charismatic newcomer Brandon Walters) who has a pivotal role throughout as a prepubescent Aboriginal mixed breed. Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman) thinks her husband is unfaithful so she embarks to Australia to try and convince him to vacate his ranch and return with her to England. When she arrives, she discovers he's been murdered and that the evil land baron next door, King Carney (Bryan Brown) has been stealing her husband's cattle while also trying to obtain the ranch. To save the ranch, she needs to sell 1,500 cattle and proceeds to enlists the aid of rouge Aussie cowboy, Drover (played by People Mag's newly appointed Sexiest Man Alive Hugh Jackman) to drive the herd northward to the seaport of Darwin. Factor in ex-farmhand Neil Fletcher (David Wenham) who joins forces with Carney after Ashley fires him when she learns that he has been aiding in the thefts. After the cattle drive, the western part of the tale turns into a war movie. The same Japanese planes that bombed Pearl Harbor are now on their way 4 weeks later to do the same to Darwin-which occurs just after the principals arrived. Overseeing the action is Mullah's grandfather, King George (David Gulpilil) whose presence is felt throughout. An interesting tidbit is that Drover was initially offered to Baz's bud Russell Crowe who rejected the offer in 2006 saying he doesn't do "charity work for major studios". The most expensive Australian movie ever made opens nationwide on 11/26.

"Slumdog Millionaire" ***1/2 (120 minutes)

Wednesday November 12, 2008

Danny Boyle has gone Bollywood! The talented English director who hit the ground running with 1995's critically acclaimed "Trainspotting" and more recently with "Millions", "Sunshine", & "28 Weeks Later", has directed this rousing crowd pleaser which embody many of the same ingredients coming out of the hugely successful Mumbai-based film industry in India. So, expect melodrama by the boatloads and, lively music throughout (although you have to wait until the closing credits to see the requisite dancing by the principals and hundreds of extras that will literally have you bouncing out of your seat with glee as you exit the theater). The film opens in Mumbai in 2006 where we see our 18 year old hero, Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel) in the "hot seat" who is one question away from winning 20 million rupees on India's version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". (I loved the show's host played by Anil Kapoor, by the way. A smarmy version of Regis, who has his own agenda.) Suddenly, the show stops for the night and we see him being whisked away and tortured by the show's security force who believe he's cheated his way to being a possible national hero. You see, Jamal is a slumdog-a kid who has been an impoverished orphan forced to live on the streets of India with his older brother, Salim. How could he possibly know whose picture was on the American hundred dollar bill? A kid who has cheated, lied, and stole his way through life with nothing but street smarts as his only education. How in the world would he get this far in the contest WITHOUT cheating? Danny then proceeds to take us on a wild ride back and forth in time using ingenious editing, gorgeous cinematography, and pounding music that shows the security dudes and us how Jamal came to honestly know the answers-mainly by living them. Well . . . sort of. And it's that "sort of" that is the fun part of the journey as there is more at work here than mere knowledge. Boyle uses multiple actors (who look amazingly like the same character as they age) to play each of the 3 principal slumdogs, and alternates subtitles and English with ease (another Bollywood trait). Although I found the plot to be somewhat predictable and manipulable, overall, this one will have you mesmerized throughout. The winner of the audience award at this year's Toronto Film Festival, I wouldn't be surprised to see this one nominated as Best Picture come Oscar time!

"Let the Right One In" **** (104 minutes)

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Back to Cinema Sundays at The Charles for, oh no!, another take on the vampire legend. Before you say, " no way-I know its been done before" I say how about this one: an intelligent coming-of-age vampire movie . . with heart! And if you say, "no way-this is not my cup of tea", I urge you to see this one with an open mind and if you do, you'll will be rewarded with one of the strongest films I've seen this year! This Swedish import knocked my socks off!! Beautifully shot (stark snowy Stockholm is stunning on the screen), beautifully acted, and beautifully written, this is the one to see in a season when, all of a sudden, we are being bombarded by the genre (HBO's new series, "True Blood", and the soon to be released Hollywood film, "Twilight"). Director Tomas Alfredson has crafted this beautiful love/horror story using a screenplay by Swedish horror writer John Ajvide Lindqvist, based on his novel. Set in 1982, it tells the story of social outcast and picked-upon 12 year old Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant) who one day happens upon his peculiar next door neighbor, Eli (Lina Leandersson), who happens to be "12-more or less". After she immediately tells Oskar that they can't be friends, circumstances brings them closer together. And we quickly learn that the adult living with Eli, is not her father but her companion who must find Eli's human nourishment on the streets of Stockholm. Although there are a couple of graphic scenes, they are artfully done with minimal shock value. (I mean, come on, you can't have a vampire film without SOME bloodletting.) But the characters are so richly drawn and the story so compelling that, to me, it all fit perfectly together for a totally satisfying filmic experience on so many levels. And the soundtrack by composer Johan Soderqvist ("Things We Lost in the Fire") is nothing short of wonderful-accompanying the action as perfectly as any film in recent memory. This masterpiece is garnishing well deserved critical acclaim (currently 48 out 50 critic approval tabulated on Rotten Tomatoes) and has already won numerous awards including "The Founders Award For Best Narrative Feature" at this years Tribeca Film Festival. Matt Reeves ("Cloverfield") is already planning a domestic version (the good news is that he claims it is not a remake-that he is adapting the book from scratch and not merely copying this film). The title, by the way, comes from the title of a Morrissey song, but also has meaning in the narrative. The film opens at The Charles Theater in Baltimore on November 14th. Absolutely brilliant!

"Trouble the Water" *** 1/2 (90 minutes)

Tuesday October 28th, 2008

Jed Dietz, director of The Maryland Film Festival, has done it again. So impressed was he by the 2008 Sundance Documentary Grand Jury Prize winner, that, when a release timing conflict prevented him from screening it at last May's Maryland Film Festival, he was finally able to bring it in Baltimore-along with filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessen-for free! The winner at this year's AFI Silverdocs and Full Frame Film Festival, this extraordinary film literally puts you in the eye of the storm known as Katrina using footage taken firsthand by Kimberly Roberts and her husband Scott-who happened to be residents of the ill-fated 9th Ward. The back story is amazing. Carl & Tia (who previously worked with Michael Moore) were filming in Alexandria, La when they happened upon Kim & Scott who had gone there when they were finally able to retreat from the storm. It seems that shortly before the rain and wind hit, Kim had purchased a camera for $20 on the streets of New Orleans and, instead of filming family events, turned her camera onto the devastation about to hit her neighborhood. Although totally unfamiliar with the camera, she managed to capture the harrowing experience that destroyed her community. Its utter rawness actually gives you a "You Are There" account that no poor Weather Channel reporter could ever convey! You are there as the Scotts' camera trains on the untouched neighborhood, on the initial raindrops, on the flooded streets below the attic where they and other folks were huddled, on the desperate 911 call where their pleas for rescue went for naught because no one was able/willing to rescue them, on the destruction of the 9th Ward after the rains had subsided. All along, Kim gives commentary that only adds to the terror of her surroundings. Although the battery power lasted only 30 minutes during the storm, there is enough pre and post hurricane footage to give the audience the full human impact that no one else could ever provide. Interspersed, Carl & Tia have provided the professional footage of the news reports and interviews that everyone across the country were receiving. After the waters had subsided, Kim and her camera walk the deserted streets. You follow Kim as she happens upon a house holding the remains of a homeless man she happened upon, and warned, just hours before the storm hit. And you are witness to the utter abandonment by their Government-especially after over 100,000 residents were unable to evacuate the city before Katrina hit the shores of Louisiana. (Scott remarks that they felt like they weren't U.S. citizens!) You follow them to a deserted Navy base where there are hundreds of unused beds, but, incredibly, they are turned away by sailors with M-16's. (You later learn that these same soldiers received Presidential commendations for their work in the city in the aftermath!) You watch as they are forced to take up residence in their old school-where their bed is made by pushing desks together. You come to realize what it was like to live in the shoes of the survivors that the news reports could never convey. As depressing as all this sounds, the film is ultimately uplifting and hopeful as it speaks volumes on the capability and fortitude of the human spirit. Kim has gone onto a singing career as a rap artist (as Black Kold Madina) and has even started a recording company (Her on screen performance of one song is quite inspiring and three of her songs grace the soundtrack.) Scott felt the need to do meaningful work and has succeeded in helping to rebuild his community-instead, as he says, of making drinks in a French Quarter bar. A small quibble: The filmmakers have correctly supplied subtitles for the heaviest accented New Orleaneans. I had just wished they had used it more as a lot of Kim's narration is indecipherable. Other than that, this is one powerful doc that is deservedly generating glowing reviews (currently 47 out of 48 critic approval on Rotten Tomatoes). One interesting side note: When the Scotts attended this year's Sundance Film Festival they attended the premiere on January 20th. Kim gave birth in Park City the next day: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The film was bought by HBO and will be shown sometime next year. In the meantime, it has opened in limited release around the country. On Friday, October 31st, it will open at The Charles Theater in Baltimore. Considering the short screening life of documentaries in most theaters, I strongly behoove you to get your behind to the nearest theater it arrives in it as soon as possible to witness this astounding film on the big screen.

"The Boy In The Striped Pajamas" *** (94 minutes)

Sunday October 26, 2008

Off to the AFI Silver Theater for another great members-only event: the pre-release screening of Mark Herman's ("Brassed Off" & "Little Voice") film based on John Boyne's award winning children's novel of the same name-attended by both author and director. Screenwriter/director Herman tells this Holocaust fable mainly through the eyes of a German child about a German family who uproots from their posh surroundings when the patriarch (David Thewlis) is placed in charge of a Concentration Camp. His wife, ably played Vera Farmiga ("The Departed") , and his 2 children (Asa Butterfield & Amber Beattie) are initially kept under wraps about what lies just beyond the fringe of the "estate". Bored out of his wits, 8 year old Bruno starts to explore his surroundings and ends up meeting another 8 year old clothed in "striped pajamas" (Jack Scanlon) on the other side of the fence encircling what he believes is a farm. Meanwhile, his 12 year old sister (Amber Beattie) is slowing being indoctrinated into the Nazi mindset by their tutor and her attraction for a cruel German Soldier (Rupert Friend), who is housing his own secrets. Lacking anyone else he can relate to, young Bruno starts to closely bond with his new friend. Herman has used excellent production values to recreate the Nazi milieu. The cinematography and set design are top notch (the film was shot in Hungary), as is award winning composer James Horner's haunting soundtrack. My main problem: the use of distinguished British actors to play the German characters. It was hard to wrap my head around watching the Nazi monsters speaking in proper English accents. During the Q & A, Herman said he had no problem not using German dialogue with subtitles since the book itself was translated worldwide. I agree that the fable is universal and that it doesn't matter what language is on the printed page. It was just difficult matching that to the visual realism on the screen. And how often do you have a novelist and a screenwriter appearing together for a Q & A? Boyne said that, even though the screenplay was written by the Director, he revealed that Herman forwarded all the drafts to him for input. Boyne also noted that though the ending was slightly different, he wished he had written the scene when Bruno discovers a collection of naked dolls from the Jewish children inmates piled high in the basement of the house. I asked the filmmaker whether he considered filming in black and white. He responded that he did indeed consider it but nixed the idea stating that it has been done that way before. Herman tells the story with great economy as he effectively covers arcs of great emotion in a little over an hour and a half.

"Pride and Glory" *** 1/2 (125 minutes)

Monday October 20, 2008

Gritty-the first word that comes to mind to describe the latest by director/co-screenwriter Gavin O'Connor. I loved his first indie work, 1999's "Tumbleweeds" (in which Janet McTeer earned a well deserved Golden Globe Best Actress award, as well as noms from the AA and Screen Actor's Guild) which I screened at Sundance. Here he teams with screenwriter Joe Carnahan (who wrote another powerful indie police tale "Narc") and employs a top notch cast to tell this tale that begins with the ambush of four of NY's finest during a drug bust. All are from the same unit, headed by Noah Emmerich, whose father (Jon Voight) is his superior. Noah's brother (Edward Norton) is brought into the investigation by his father to investigate, who soon discovers that the killer was tipped off by another cop. Colin Farrell is the brother-in-law in the same unit and we quickly learn he is not one of NY's finest, to say the least. The film is effectively shot in stark muted tones by veteran cinematographer, Declan Quinn (DP for the currently well received "Rachel Getting Married") and has a nice companion score by vet Mark Isham ("Crash"). The dialogue, action scenes, and acting are very realistic and, even though the story is familiar, it will hold your interest to the end.

"W." ** 1/2 (129 minutes)

Tuesday October 14, 2008

The trailer had me expecting an SNL-like satiric biopic of our lame duck pres. Knowing full well director Oliver Stone's liberal political leanings only enforced this expectation. So, I was genuinely surprised to, instead, view something quite different. Stone has been known to inflict his own agenda and realities into previous presidential films ("JFK" and "Nixon") so I thought he would come to this project a tad differently considering that the topic deals with a sitting president (the first such movie to do so). Indeed, I read that all the "conversations" are based on documented "facts" so I was curious to see how Stone would approach current history. The fact that he quickly put it all together (he began filming in May) so it would be released before next month's election, would indicate that he would somehow try to influence moviegoers with his antiwar philosophies by putting our distinguished President in as unfavorable light as possible. The result: an uneven account into the psyche of our 43rd president. Stone flips back and forth in time to show how this dimwitted dude, shown early on during a drunken initiation to join his college fraternity, could ever become President. Specific periods of his life depicted include how he met future First Lady Laura, his bouts with drinking, his born again conversion, his runs for The Senate and then as Governor of Texas. However, a good deal of the film deals with the period after 9/11 and how he involved us with the Iraq war and the subsequent revelation that no WMD's were ever found. Interspersed are his dealings with his inner circle as well as the elder Bush with the revelations that both he and mom Barbara considered him inferior to brother Jeb. All of these periods are just snippets which seemed hastily thrown together to disturbingly reveal a dude who is no more qualified to be the leader of the free world than . . . well, you can fill in the blanks on this one. Screenwriter Stanley Weiser (who also co-scripted Stone's "Wall Street") does include some humor, but, in the end, it is more a drama than comedy that ultimately left me feeling ambivalent, sad, and angry that this country elected a guy who has plunged our economy down the tubes, and has involved us in another insane war for all the wrong reasons. That being said, the main reason to recommend it is the acting by Josh Brolin-who is creating quite an impressive catalogue of work. His W is absolutely amazing. More than an impersonation, it is worth the price of admission to see how much he embodies him. Other acting notables are Richard Dreyfuss (Chaney), Jeffrey Wright (Colin Powell), Scott Glenn (Donald Rumsfeld), Toby Jones (Karl Rove), James Cromwell (George Bush, Sr), Elizabeth Banks (Laura Bush), a wild turn by Ellen Burstyn (Barbara Bush), and an unrecognizable Thandie Newton as Condi Rice. However it is Josh Brolin who really pulls it off-whose physical and vocal mannerisms brings W to life to such a degree that you will be counting down the days to when the prefix "ex" is attached to W's presidential moniker.

"Happy-Go-Lucky" *** (118 minutes)

Monday October 13, 2008

The comedy genre and famed English writer/director Mike Leigh are not usually synonymous. Used to cutting his chops on such heavy topics as adoption (1996's "Secrets & Lies") and abortion (his most recent film, 2004's wonderful "Vera Drake"), this is territory that we usually don't see Mike traverse. His critical and artistic success can be measured by his 100% critic approval rating for his previous 8 films rated on Rotten Tomatoes. So it is really no surprise that he has hit another winner in this acting tour de force by Sally Hawkins (seem most recently in Woody Allen's "Cassandra's Dream). I attended a screening at the AFI Silver Theater where I was treated to an extremely entertaining interview and Q & A with the director moderated by Washington Post critic Desson Howe (more on that later). Sally plays Poppy, a, well, happy-go-lucky gal who goes through life with the proverbial blinders-on, letting none of life's downers, disappointments, and tragedies get in her way to distract her from her positivity. Hers is always a glass half full as she is constantly running interference around life's obstacles. We see her M.O. from the start when her initial reaction to her stolen bike (which she gleefully rides through the opening credits) is "Gee, I didn't even have a chance to say goodbye". What really makes this one special are the characters she interacts with along the way. Particular of note is a homeless man played absolutely brilliantly by veteran Irish actor, Stanley Townsend. Most people would run the other way, but Poppy instead delivers a touching connection to the schizophrenic man that speaks volumes as to what makes her tick. Another winning supporting performance is delivered by Irishman, Eddie Marsan, who plays Poppy's driving instructor-whose view of life is diametrically opposite of Poppy's. Although not a laugh riot type of comedy, it is actually geared more to reality-a drama splattered with moments of humor. In the Q & A, Leigh was quizzed as to the degree of improvisation the cast might have used-considering the realism of the dialogue. He stated (as anyone knows who is aware of how he directs), that very little improv is used as the cast puts in nearly 6 months of rehearsals that precede the actual filming. He added that improvisation creates much less usable dialogue than a well rehearsed script and is the reason he puts his actors through the rigid rehearsal paces that are his trademark. All this lends to a unusual naturalness of the acting and makes the finished product seem more like everyday life than one can usually expect. And kudos to a wonderfully giddy, infectious soundtrack by Gary Yershon, who worked on Leigh's 1999 musical, "Topsy-Turvy".

"Body of Lies" *** 1/2 (128 minutes)

Tuesday October 7, 2008

Although not always a definite, the pedigree for this political thriller was an indication that my 2 hour plus attendance would ultimately be worthwhile. After all, you had one of world's most talented director (Ridley Scott), 2 of our most talented actors (Leonardo DiCaprio & Russell Crowe), and an Academy Award winning screenwriter (William Monahan who won Best Adapted Screenplay last year for "The Departed"). My faith was fully confirmed as this is one helluva taut intelligent thriller, masterfully directed by the "Black Hawk Down" maestro- who fully knows the genre. Based on the novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Monahan has written a smart script that will have you intrigued throughout. Although Crowe has gained 50 pounds and very capably plays a cynical CIA boss (albeit a rather pedestrian one note performance), this film belongs to DiCaprio, playing a CIA field operative whose every move is being orchestrated by the stay-at-home Crowe. I fully expect another AA nom (he's even better than last year's wonderful "Blood Diamond"). DiCaprio is working with the Jordanian intelligence chief (chillingly played by Mark Strong, an English stage and screen actor whose work here might garner him a supporting acting nod) trying to flesh out a terrorist leader in Jordan who is anonymously creating havoc in European cities. Golshifteh Farahani plays DiCaprio's Jordanian love interest whose kidnapping sets up the final half hour of action and suspense. My only main fault, once again, is the ever present, incessant soundtrack (this time around by Mark Streitenfeld who is back working with Ridley after scoring "American Gangster") that seems to be a part of virtually every scene. Scott knows how to stage spectacular effective action sequences as well as anyone on the planet. That as well as the wonderful script is sure to keep you from watching your clock to see when it all will end.

"Eagle Eye" * 1/2 (118 minutes)

Thursday September 25, 2008

What a mess! The opening sequence is the only recommendation I can give. And with ticket prices averaging around $10 a pop, those 5 minutes are hardly worth your hard earned cash as the remaining 113 minutes of this typical Hollywood dreck looks more like a bad Jerry Buckheimer production (and there a quite of few of those) than Steven Spielberg. Director D.J. Caruso (who did last year's modest winner "Disturbia") crams more car crashes and insane improbability into this monstrosity that you'll laugh out loud so many times those seated around you might think this is a comedy-if they aren't rolling in the aisle themselves. Caruso once again employs rising Hollywood star Shia LeBeouf (whose last film was "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull") as an everyday schmo who is directed by a mysterious female voice over his cell phone to obey her every command or risk instant death. The power behind the voice also has a way to control every electronic device (and even trash compactors!) on the planet allowing every threat to possibly come to fruition. The film utilizes a script by 4 screenwriters, including Dan McDermott (who wrote the story, as well as the screenplay for the "wonderful" 2006 remake of "The Omen"), while including a noisy totally annoying soundtrack by Brian Tyler. And it shamelessly copies from several classics, such as "2001-A Space Odyssey", "1984", and "The Manchurian Candidate", to name just a few. The requisite female companion is played admirably by Michelle Monaghan ("Gone Baby Gone") who is enlisted into the outrageous goings on, with Billy Bob Thornton playing a relentless FBI agent chasing LeBeouf at the same time thinking he is a terrorist. Such suspense, such action, such crap!

"Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired" *** 1/2 (99 minutes)

Thursday September 18, 2008

It took director Marina Zenovich 5 years to complete this engrossing documentary which focuses mainly on the sensational trial surrounding the unlawful sexual encounter between the famed director and a 13 year old girl in 1977. When it became clear that the judge in this case, Laurence J. Rittenband, would possibly sentence him to jail time instead of granting probation, Polanski decided to flee the U.S. To this day, he has remained in exile in France. Marina has taken great care to present an unbiased work that chronicles the details of, what appears to be, a total travesty of justice. Most people do not know the ins and outs of the sensational trial and many will be shocked to see how one person (Rittenband) could shamelessly put his own ego way ahead of the scales of justice. The appropriate history is presented: the director's life as a French born who grows up in Poland only to have his parents slaughtered during the Holocaust; his early extraordinary success overseas as a director; his U.S. success at the helm of such masterpieces such as "Rosemary's Baby" & "Chinatown"; and, of course, his ill fated marriage to the late Sharon Tate. All this helps to create a certain amount of sympathy for the director who then makes the wrongful decision, no matter what the circumstances, to offer drugs and have sex with the underage girl. What really makes this all so fascinating is the access Marina has to virtually all the principals involved-including the now 34 year old victim. Although Polanski is not interviewed for the film, you won't notice as everyone from the victim, prosecutor, attorneys, to even the court reporter at the time (who astonishingly reveals that, at one point, Rittenband asked him how he should decide Polanski's fate). Correctly, Hollywood chose to honor his brilliance in absentia with the Best Director Oscar in 2002 for "The Pianist". The doc was presented by the filmmaker (brought in by folks at The Maryland Film Festival) who, at the Q & A, when asked if Roman saw it and, if so, what were his comments, said he approved by asking her about her next project. The film was purchased by HBO and was in limited release around the country earlier this year. It has already screened on the network and will show it again sometime in the future. This is an amazing well crafted account of one of the most curious episodes in Hollywood history. In the end, you can't blame Roman for his decision never to step on our soil again.

"Boy A" *** (100 minutes)

Sunday September 7, 2008

The inaugural film opening the 2008 fall series of the Cinema Sundays at The Charles comes to us from Scotland. This tough, in-your-face movie by director John Crowley ("Intermission") is not the kind of flick that will have you dancing in the aisles with joy, to say the least! Anthony Perkins look-a-like, Andrew Garfield ("Lions For Lambs") plays a young man newly released from prison after spending the previous 14 years as a juvenile offender. There to greet him is his caseworker, Terry, played by talented Scot Peter Mullen ("My Name is Joe"), who will help him adjust to his new life. Based on the novel by Jonathan Trigell, the film might bring to mind the case of the 2 juveniles who were seen on a mall video in England leading away a child who was later found murdered. However, when we meet "Boy A" (as the courts referred to him to protect his identity) we see him as an introverted soul who seems soft and kindly. Only later do we learn, through flashbacks to his pre-prison life, how he got involved with "Boy B" and what led to his incarceration. The film raises many questions about how society treats its youthful criminals, if these criminals should be given a second chance, and whether justice is really served in the final analysis. Outstanding performances by the leads (especially Garfield who exhibits a full range of emotions throughout) enhances the utter realism of the proceedings. My main fault is a pet peeve: the decision by the filmmakers not to include subtitles for the dialogue spoken by the heavily Scottish accented cast. However, if you like great acting and films that make you think and debate tough timely issues, be certain to put it on your list.

"Righteous Kill" *** (101 minutes)

Wednesday September 10, 2008

Much has been made of Hollywood icons De Niro vs Pacino's brief one scene confrontation in Michael Mann's brilliant 1995 "Heat". Although these 2 living legends had appeared in the same film way back in 1974's "Godfather II", this was the first time they actually shared screen time together. Many wondered why it took them both to be into their 60's before they traded acting chops again but, as the saying goes, better late than never. Director Jon Avnet (whose career took a misstep with one of this year's major flops, "88 Minutes", after showing much promise with his offbeat 2004's "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" and one of my favorite films of 2001, "Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her") barely succeeds in this endeavor by devoting almost every scene to the 2 master thespians. And for that alone, this one is worth the price of admission. In fact this would be a mildly entertaining 2 1/2 star flick if it wasn't for their presence. Just sit back and marvel as these 2 deliver the goods as 2 longtime NY detective partners investigating a serial killer/vigilante trying to clean up the streets of the city after the courts repeatedly fail to do so. Method acting is on display in all its glory in this police psychological thriller that has shades of Sidney Lumet all over it. Both actors are in their very comfortable element once again playing detectives in the city that never sleeps, and watching both you will be reminded of previous movies in which they played the same types of characters. But this time the story by 2nd time screenwriter Russell Gewirtz ("Inside Man") puts enough smart dialogue between them to keep the proceedings moving along to keep you interested. Avnet uses some tiresome frantic cutting; and the constant pounding of the soundtrack to signal incessant dread in the action becomes way overused. However, again, its De Niro and Pacino together that makes it all worthwhile.

"Hamlet 2" ** 1/2 (92 minutes)

Thursday August 21, 2008

After taking an unexpected month off from my cinema viewing duties, I'm back on the scene and raring to go taking in this indie comedy that sold for a (surprising) 10 mil at this year's Sundance. The posters hints at a pedigree that looks appealing: "from the co-writers of South Park Bigger Louder Uncut and Team America World Police". Unfortunately, as it turns out, these are just mere words. Starring England's Steve Coogan (currently making the rounds in "Tropic Thunder") and co-starring an impressive cast (Catherine Keener, David Arquette, Amy Poehler, & Elizabeth Shue), it only occasionally amuses as it tells the tale of a failed commercials actor who sets up residence as a drama teacher in a Tucson high school. About to be canned, Coogan comes up with one last ditch performance for his thespians: an original play loosely based on "Hamlet" (verrrry loosely based) that proceeds to raise the ire of most of the community before it even hits the stage. Coogan's endless buffoonery is ingratiating but, ultimately, tiring as you watch him lose his wife, job, and self-respect, only to win out in the end. Director Andrew Fleming ("The In-Laws") throws everything against the wall trying to get something to stick and, as I stated, is occasionally successful (I did enjoy Keener & Poehler and wished they had more screen time) but, in the end, the whole affair becomes a near miss for me.

"The Dark Knight" *** 1/2 (152 minutes)

Wednesday July 16, 2008

Next February, they can toss The Oscar into his casket. And not because Hollywood was in love and is still mourning the loss of one of it’s fiercest rising stars. No, it’s because he richly deserved it, bringing total poignancy and sadness to the proceedings when Heath Ledger becomes the 2nd posthumous recipient to receive an Oscar (the first being Peter Finch when he won the Best Actor award for his role in the 1977 masterpiece “Network”). His performance is so powerful and charismatic, and so utterly unforgettable (I wrote the same thing in an earlier post about Daniel Day Lewis after screening “There Will Be Blood”) that the film actually suffers slightly when he's not on the screen. Christopher Nolan directs the wildly entertaining follow-up to his 2005 “Batman Begins” with Christian Bale (Batman), Morgan Freeman, and Gary Oldman repeating their roles (the great Maggie Gyllenhaal has taken over the role formerly occupied by Katie Holmes), while adding veteran indy actor Aaron Eckhart, veteran everything actor Michael Caine, and longtime character actor Eric Roberts as a mob boss. What a cast, what a story, and what a movie! From the opening 10 minute bank robbery to the incredible climax where 2 boatloads of people have to decide which one is going to blow the other one up first, you won’t have time to check your clock to see when it all will end-or want to for that matter. And what really sets this one apart from most of the other comic book/superhero flicks is the wonderful script by Christopher and his sibling Jonathan that allows Hedger to sink his nuanced chops into a character that will catapult him in filmdom lore forever. The bare bones plot: The brooding Bruce Wayne/Batman is having second thoughts about being the person to erase crime from Gotham City once and for all. Better to pass the task to someone else. His selection is none other than the handsome DA, Harvey Dent (Eckhart). Totally smitten by Batman’s previous love interest (Gyllenhaal), Dent reluctantly proceeds to try and become Gotham’s #1 hero while simultaneously trying to win over his assistant-who is still in love with Batman. Lurking behind all this is Hedger’s Joker who throughout the film is continuously creating chaos by playing the good guys against the bad guys-and against each other. The result: turning good guy Dent into one hideous looking bad guy-turning the plot on its ear over the final 45 minutes of playing time. I realized after the film ended that, for all of its, excuse the expression, comic book violence, there is barely any blood visible during the entire 152 minutes. The score by 2 of Hollywood's finest, Han Zimmer and James Newton Howard, is nothing short of spectacular and only adds to the mix. The only fault I had was that I was disappointed in Maggie’s part. She does the best with it, but, after finally landing a huge non-indy role, her character is not the memorable one she is capable of delivering (rent “Sherrybaby” to see one of the best performances by an actress in any year). I met Christopher Nolan in 1999 when he was present in a small screening room on Main Street in Park City at the Slamdance Film Festival (the alternative Sundance Film Festival) where his inaugural film "Following" had just won the Black & White Award. (Rent it! The film is wonderful!!) Since then, he has gone onto to become one of the planets most successful and talented filmmakers. This noir masterpiece will only add to an already glowing resume.

"Up The Yangtze" (***) (95 minutes)

Wednesday July 9, 2008

Back to reality to screen Chinese-Canadian director Yung Chang’s reflective film on the effect that the massive Three Gorges Project is having on the thousands of people being displaced along the Yangtze River by the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam. This quiet documentary reminded me of Franny Armstrong’s powerful 2004 “Drowned Out” which dealt with the travesty of India’s Sardar Sarovar Dam which stripped generations of Adivasi from their land. More quiet in its pronouncement, ”Up The Yangtze” mainly focuses on 2 young individuals whose lives are being directly affected by the change being forced on them by the government project. They are working on a cruise ship that continuously travels The Yangtze catering to the whims of mostly Western tourists. The trip reveals the changes that are taking place along the river banks as Chinese residents are slowly being displaced before the river rises up to 175 meters above its normal depths. The director adds a sparse narration to the proceedings offering his commentary on how the region has changed since he was a youth, while cutting back and forth from the cruise ship to the family of one of the principals to see how they are coping with the displacement about to take place. The filmmaker allows the camera to quietly observe the proceedings in such a way that you feel almost voyeuristic as you watch the tourists relaxing unaware of the devastating situation facing many of the Chinese citizens along the Yangtze. I would have preferred more information as to the displacement process as it involves the general population but, as presented here, the film is an effective testament to an historic change that makes one wonder if "progress" is worth the effect it is ultimately having on the humans and environment directly in its path.

"Journey To The Center Of The Earth 3D" **1/2 (89 minutes)

Monday July 7, 2008

After screening 21 documentaries in 8 days, it was back to the summer circuit. It was time to ditch reality for fantasy and the latest in a long parade of mostly lame Hollywood "Summer Blockbusters"-the term that was born with the June 1975 release of the great "Jaws". Rookie director Eric Brevig delivers the special effects in spades (maybe not that surprising considering his only other previous screen credit was for special effects in Arnold's enjoyable 1990's "Total Recall" & his work on "Pearl Harbor"). Warner Brothers/New Line is releasing this one in 3D (now labeled as "Real D") which earned it at least a 1/2 star in my final 2 and a half total. At a brisk 89 minutes, this "remake" of the 1959 original starring Pat Boone and James Mason based on the Jules Verne classic, moves nicely along and isn't a total failure mainly due to the pleasant personalities of Brendan Fraser, newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer look-a-like, Anita Briem, and veteran young actor, Josh Hutcherson ("Bridge To Terabithia"). Not a remake in the strictest sense of the word, the film asks the question: "What if Jules Verne was right-that there was, indeed a pathway to the center of the earth instead of being just a fantasy in the mind of the great novelist?" Fraser plays the science professor who theorizes that Jules was right. When his sister drops off her son (Hutcherson) and several of her late husband's belongings (he happened to be lost trying to prove Verne's theory was fact), before you can say "let's get to the center of the earth already" the 2 are off to Iceland to find a scientist who may have discovered Verne's entrance to the earth's depths. Instead, they find his (of course) beautiful live alone daughter (her dad died 3 years earlier), who agrees (for 5 grand an hour) to lead them to the entrance. The implausibility of all this is so freakin' ridiculous that you have to laugh at it all-along with the (intended) light humor of the script. It's almost a guilty pleasure as you watch these 3 maneuver their way through the abyss for most of the running time. I've seen 50's B movies more believable than this, and your eyes will roll so often that you'll end up missing a lot of the 3D effects. But, then again, you were expecting "War and Peace" here?

AFI SIVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 8 & Final Thoughts

Monday June 24, 2008

Silverdocs expanded to 8 days this year for the first time allowing additional screenings. When the festival first started in 2003, the opening night was on a Tuesday and the award winners played on the following Sunday. This year, opening night was last Monday, with the awards ceremony held on Saturday. The winners, as well as "back by demand" films, are now playing on Monday. So, off I went to explore 2 of the major winners.

First up was the Sterling U.S. Documentary feature award, "The Garden" (****). Scott Hamilton Kennedy ("OT: Our Town") masterfully chronicles the rise and fall of the largest urban farm in the U.S. Arising from the ashes of South Central L.A. after the 1992 riots, the community garden was tilled by mainly poor Latinos who turned the blighted 14 acre lot into a place of beauty, pride, & sustenance. For 11 years, the tenants were allowed to work rent-free on the city-owned property until, in 2003, they a received notice of eviction from the original owner-who had re-obtained the land from the city. And what was this owner planning to do on the land? Why-build a soccer field and warehouses! To make matters worse, the film reveals that the reacquisition by the owner was as a result of a sleazy deal perpetuated by the City Council. The tenants proceeded to enlist the aid of attorneys to fight for their right to stay-a fight which would last 2 1/2 years and would eventually include the financial backing of Hollywood celebrities and organizations-all to no avail. Once again the poor cannot compete against the immoral political and financial powers that, unfortunately, all too often determine their fate. The proceedings are effectively told using interviews and stock footage as it dramatically reveals the injustice perpetuated upon a group who were able to produce something beautiful in the most unlikely of places and is well deserving of the Sterling Award!

My final screening was the great Witness award winner, "Pray The Devil Back To Hell" (****). A phenomenal way to end the festival was this stunning story by Emmy winning ("Ladies First") and Academy Award nominated (for her short "Asylum") Gini Reticker who seems to be drawn to the role of women in war-torn, politically charged countries. The Devil in this story is the head of Liberia, Charles Taylor. Coming to power in 1997, he proceeded to plunge the country into a 2nd civil war in which over 250,000 were killed and a million people displaced. Tired of seeing this happening to her country once again, it took a Martin Luther King-like dream by Leyman Gbowee to be inspired with a plan: enlisting the aid of the women to end a war started and maintained by men. Not only did they accomplish the astonishing feat, but the result of the first democratic election was won by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf-Africa's first female woman elected head of state. The film maker wisely includes subtitles to accompany the heavily English accented Liberians (a process I'd wish some famous Irish and Scottish directors would utilize!). Gini's superb storytelling and the utilization of an amazing soundtrack combine to tell one of the most inspiring stories of our time.

Final Thoughts

-This amazing festival only seems to get better and better each year. From the opening in 2003 with the presence of Geraldine Chaplin presenting Richard Schickel's heartwarming film about her father: "Charlie: The Life And Times Of Times Of Charles Chaplin", to the conclusion this year where 97 full length films representing the best in documentary films from all over the world were presented, it is quite clear that Silverdocs is becoming one of the most important and influential platforms for the genre.
-The expansion to include the category of World Feature is a welcome addition to the awards process, as is the newly created Writers Guild of American Documentary Screenplay Award.-The first class treatment of all who attend the festival by everyone from the organizers, film makers, down to the multitude of volunteers is to be commended.
-This was the first time in all the festivals that I've attended that EVERY screening started on time with NO technical glitches! BRAVO! to everyone involved in this feat.
-The additional two days made more films available to the public and the showings at the state of the art AFI Silver Theater results in the absolute best presentation for each film.
-This was clearly the best year yet for Silverdocs. Festival directors, Patricia Finneran and programmer Sky Sitney are to be applauded and should be proud of the work they have done to bring this elite festival to fruition.

AFI SIVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 7

Sunday June 22, 2008

A relatively light day today with only 2 screenings. I started it off with the U.S. premiere of "Letter To Anna: The Story Of Journalist Politkovskaya's Death" (***) which chronicled the events surrounding the assassination in 2006 of the Russian investigative newspaper reporter. A fearless, relentless journalist, she knew her days were probably numbered as a result of her writings about Chechnya and the Putin administration and the enemies she created along the way. (She was nearly poisoned to death in 2004 while on her way to Beslan to help in the school hostage crisis.) Director Eric Bergkraut ably describes the dangerous political climate in Russia where she and over a dozen other journalists have now lost their lives since 2000. My main fault with the film was the monotonous manner it was presented as was the narration from Susan Sarandon and the filmmaker himself (necessary when he revealed during the Q & A that Richard Gere backed out of the project at the last minute). However, the documentary did convey the bravery of the slain writer and her heroic attempts to report on the continual injustices in and around Russia. (Bergkraut stated in the Q & A that Anna's killers have recently been arrested-but, so far, not the people who were behind the killings.)

It was finally time for something light-hearted and no better way to satisfy that urge than the east coast premiere of "Hi My Name Is Ryan" (***). Directors Paul Eagleston and his first cousin Stephen Rose, give us a unique portrait of the 19 year old Phoenix native who conquers his insecurities stemming from his upbringing and hypopituitarism (which stunts his growth and gives him the appearance and voice of a pubescent teenager) by becoming an over the top performance artist. As a result, he has become somewhat of a local living legend among those who have witnessed all the various incarnations of his acts. And what are these acts? Well . . . that is really hard to define in this space. You are witness to a barrage of videos of Ryan in action and, although you are laughing at him at times, you'll eventually be won over by his will to overcome his physical deficiencies and the absolute sincerity in his performances. Then, at the height of his popularity, he reveals that he is ending it all so that he can spread the Mormon gospel! The film makers revealed at the Q & A that they only had a week and a half to film Ryan but were blessed with the existence of videos of him in actions, which they were successfully able to weave into the story. The addition of a hilarious running dialogue by Wayne, his main protagonist in Phoenix who constantly puts Ryan down but only serves to make himself look foolish, adds greatly to the fun. A sweet profile about someone you are not likely to forget after the lights come up.

(Note: "I.O.U.S.A." was shown today and my review can be read in my May 2nd post of The Maryland Film Festival)

AFI SIVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 6

Saturday June 21, 2008

I went back-to-back with 2 of the most amazing docs that I screened at the festival, with a stop in-between for the awards ceremony. First up was the D.C. premiere of the gut-wrenching documentary, "Dear Zachary: A Letter To His Son About His Father" (****), which premiered at this year's Slamdance Film Festival . This is award winning director Kurt Kuenne's riveting documentary about his childhood friend with whom he made childhood movies but whose life tragically ended when he was murdered as a young adult. He initially began the project as a tribute to his friend, Andrew Bagby. However, what he uncovers along the way would rival any Hollywood crime drama. I could write volumes but it is best not to lay out the details as its full impact can only be achieved by going into this one stone cold. The twists and turns it takes will have you thoroughly emotionally exhausted at the end. Kurt displays incredible editing techniques while narrating the amazing details that unfold along the way. Kurt revealed during the Q & A that the film was picked up and that the formal announcement would be made on Monday. Great news for an absolutely incredible work!

Before the next film, I attended the hour long awards ceremony. The envelope please:

Sterling US Feature Award
Winner: THE GARDEN
Special Jury Mention: TROUBLE THE WATER
Sterling World Feature Award
Winner: THE ENGLISH SURGEON
Special Jury Mention: THE RED RACE
Sterling Short Award
Winner: WHAT WOULD THE DROP KNOW ABOUT THAT? (screens with THE GARDEN)
Honorable Mention: GROUND FLOOR RIGHT and ONE DAY
Music Documentary Award
THROW DOWN YOUR HEART
Cinematic Vision Award
THE ORDER OF MYTHS
WITNESS Award
PRAY THE DEVIL BACK TO HELL
American Film Market/SILVERDOCS Award
KASSIM THE DREAM
Writers Guild of American Documentary Screenplay Award
FORBIDDEN LIE$
ACE Grant Winner
THE ELEPHANT IN THE LIVING ROOM
Audience Awards (Announced Sunday after all of the audience ballots were tabulated)
Feature: HERB AND DOROTHY
Short: THE TAILOR

Time to get exhausted once again by taking in veteran documentary director, Gonzalo Aragon's "Stranded: I've Come From A Plane That Crashed On The Mountain" (****). That was the statement scribbled on a piece of paper by one of the 16 survivors of the Uruguayan 1972 plane crash to one of his rescuers. The incident has since been immortalized in Piers Paul Reads bestseller, "Alive" as well as a 1993 Hollywood version. However, even if you think you know the details, think again. After the plane carrying a Uruguayan rugby team of 45 crashed into the Andean Cordillera mountainside, the survivors set up camp for an astonishing 72 days. Twelve days later, when they hear over a transistor radio that the search operation for them was being called off, the group realized that they had to resort to cannibalism in order to stay alive. Then, to make matters worse, they experienced an avalanche that buried the plane's remains. How they survived is told via the astonishing eyewitness testimony of several of those surviving 16 people (some of whom were childhood friends of the director), reenactments to give you a visual feel for their situation, and actual photographs taken at the crash site that convey the desperate straits of the survivors. Aragon is there 35 years later when they and their families reunite at the crash site (The Valley of the Tears), which brings further poignancy to the proceedings. This is, hands-down, the most harrowing survival story I have ever heard, and to listen to the accounts of those who were there makes their feat even more miraculous.

I ended the day with a repeat viewing of "Song Sung Blue" which I saw in early May at the Maryland Film Festival (see previous older post in this blog). Here was my review from 5/3:

First up was the amazing "Song Sung Blue" (*** 1/2) which won both the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2008 Slamdance Film Festival. Being an aspiring musician in several rock bands in my early 20's, I have always had a keen interest in films dealing with individuals who went to extreme lengths to make it in the fickle world of entertainment. Luckily, I woke up in time to realize that dreams don't always pay the bills. So, I abandoned these ideas when I joined the thousands and thousands of people (many of whom were way more talented) on the sidelines. I also understood that one needed a ton of luck to go along with talent-and even then you had to have extreme tunnel vision to be relentless in making it happen no matter the consequences. Greg Kohs' wonderful documentary deals with the Milwaukee husband and wife duo Mike and Claire Sardina (known as Lightning and Thunder) and uses a decades worth of footage to bring this fascinating story to the screen. The film focuses on Mike's (Lightning) obsession to make it "big" by performing mainly Neil Diamond material (along with those of Patsy Cline and ABBA). Not only did Mike resemble the pop icon, he also had the sound and inflections of Diamond down pat. They became local icons in Milwaukee and hit it big when they opened for Pearl Jam in front of 30,000 people. It was then that Mike thought that that was the break they needed. However, tragedy struck when Claire was loses her leg after she's hit by a car while innocently gardening in her front yard. Their career takes a downturn after this, as does their personal life, but it wasn't enough to discourage Mike and Claire's dream to succeed. Their no holds bard roller coaster ride is fully exposed by the incessant filming of the duo through all their tragedies and triumphs. If this were a fictionalized story, you probably wouldn't believe it. What made it more special was Claire's appearance at the festival (see DAY 1 above) which left special poignancy to the proceedings.

(Note: "American Teen" was shown today and my review can be read in my May 3rd post of The Maryland Film Festival)


AFI SIVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 5

Friday June 21, 2008

Way before "American Idol", "The Bachelor", "The Amazing Race", or even MTV's "The Real World", for U.S. reality TV viewers it basically all started with the PBS 1973 ground breaking series, "An American Family". The festival was able to obtain the rarely shown 12 part series (it is not available on DVD) and treated early risers to the entire work over 3 days. Filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond (who have the doc "Hard Times At Douglass High" screening this week at the festival), shot over 300 hours of cinema verite-style footage over 8 months in 1971 while covering the lives of Bill & Pat Loud and their 5 children. TV Guide would eventually include it in their list of the " Greatest Television Shows of All Time". To conclude their series, they were allowed to return in 1983 to do a 10 year follow-up on the family that, during the original series, startled American when Pat Loud told hubby Bill that she wanted a divorced, and son Lance became the first person to announce that he was gay on national TV. No one had ever witnessed this type of film making before and many debated at the time whether the Raymond's presence was the catalyst for the events and not just an uninvolved observer of the family changes as the Louds became national media celebrities in the process. Today I got up early to catch the one hour 1983 show (*** 1/2) as well as their 2003 "Lance Loud! A Death In An American Family"(****)-filmed at Lance's request when he entered a hospice in 2001. Anyone who saw the amazing 1964 British Series "Seven Up" as it followed the lives of 7 year olds every 7 years, knows the fascination of watching human beings grow and mature over the course of many years. We learn that, thirty years later, Bill had remarried, Pat was adjusting to a new career as a single person in New York, Lance had set up shop in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, joined in New York by sister Delilah, while the other children, Kevin, Grant, and Michelle were embarking on careers as young adults. And, although Lance's flamboyant lifestyle ultimately led to his death, the 2001 show also focused on a Lance that those familiar with the series never knew. He became a talented writer of the pop scene in many national magazines and the touching tribute by The Raymonds was a fitting and beautiful coda to this amazing series-especially when it was revealed at the end that, at Lances' request, his parents reunite at his funeral. Not only did they conform to his wishes, we learned that they were currently back living together! An amazing work by 2 extremely talented and influential film makers. (Note: Although, as previously mentioned, the original series is not available, "Lance Loud! A Death In An American Family" is available for purchase on the film makers' web site: http://www.videoverite.tv/.)

Next was Danish director, Phie Ambo's take on robotic technology, the U.S. premiere of "Mechanical Love" (***). which focused on the current work of Professor Hiroshi Ishigur of Japan's Nagoya University. The fascinating film has the viewer asking questions as to what value we should be placing on inanimate objects made to look and act like real animals and humans. We witness the effect that "Paro", the robotic seal is having on an elderly German nursing home patient whose affection and love for the "pet" is probably extending her will to live. It is revealed that studies involving the elderly and those with dementia have shown improved brain activity as a result of the continual interaction with "Paro". We later learn that over 2,000 Paro's have already been sold as they are about to enter the U.S. at the cost of $3,000 per. Also, featured was the professor's work on a Germinoid, a robot made to look exactly like a human-in this case himself. You see him and his students work to bring this robot to life as he prepares for an interaction between it and his 8 year old daughter to see if she can feel it's presence, or "sonzai kan". Although the emotional connection is never made between the mechanical and the human in this instance, it raises questions as to when such connections will ultimately be made as the technology continues to improve. Although the scenes tended to go on a bit too long (I was yearning to known more information about the manufacturing process) , it did offer an interesting look into this "future is now" topic. At the conclusion of the screening, 2 Paro's were offered up to the audience to hold and to pet to get a close first-hand look and feel of the technology.

From robots to an intimate peak into polygamy with the intriguing North American premiere of "Four Wives-One Man" (*** 1/2). Award winning Swedish director Nahid Persson ("Prostitution Behind The Veil") takes her cameras into rural Iran, the country of her birth, and specifically into the household of Heda, his mother, 4 wives, and 20 children. You witness the hierarchical structure of the household as each wife conspires and unites with their marital equals as they grapple with a husband whose wandering ways is about to introduce a 5th wife into the crowded mix. Often humorous and, at times, extremely poignant, this a complex situation that few people will ever get to witness close-up.

Back to the U.S. for a wonderful portrait, and exquisitely made film, about 2 unassuming everyday folks (a postal clerk and a librarian) who just happen to be two of the most influential art collectors in history. First time director Megumi Sasaki's brilliant world premiere of "Herb And Dorothy" (****) was about the Vogels, who amassed over 4,000 works by unknown minimalist and conceptual artists while operating on only 2 rules: they could afford it and it could fit into their one-bedroom rent controlled Manhattan apartment. Needless to say there was no room for a couch! I first became fascinated with this amazing couple when I saw a "60 Minutes" feature in the early 90's when their collection became famous after donating (!) it to the National Gallery Of Art. It took 5 full size vans to take the collection out their apartment to Washington. Interestingly, the trip to DC was, at first, never considered a definitive one-way deal and the real question became, should the museum ultimately refuse the donation after they examined it, how would they be able to cram all those works of art back into their apartment? Despite the fact that their collection was worth millions, the Vogels were merely interested in the safe keeping of the collection (many of their works were covered over with cloth on the apartment walls to protect them from light damage) and they refused to donate to a museum which wasn't free to the public. In fact, they never received, or wanted, a dime from the sale of anything they possessed, but agreed to receive a stipend offered by the National Gallery-which they used, of course, to buy more art! The film has a wonderful arc in its presentation as you follow the meager existence of these 2 generous souls whose keen eye and feel for the quality of art they collected have immortalized them for all time. And the added presence of Dorothy (in her 70's) and Herb (in his 80's) for the Q & A only made the presentation more exciting. Bravo to the selecting committee for the world premier screening of this work of cinematic art!

After the exhilaration of the Vogels, I attended Silverdocs annual outdoor screening that is usually tied in with one of the themes of the festival. A nice companion to the opening night film, was legendary Albert & David Maysles ground breaking and rarely seen direct cinema style doc, "What's Happening! The Beatles In The U.S.A" (***). Covering the group when they first arrived in New York in 1964 in preparation for their Ed Sullivan historic appearances and concert tour, you get a wonderful feel for the times and craziness as Beatlemania was just taking root. You get an intimate look into their personalities inside their Plaza suite and limos, and follow them as they embark on their first concert tour. The film meanders a bit and the sound quality (where the Maysles use only the camera mike) are prehistoric compared to what we are now routinely used to, but the doc is an important historic work and a wonderful "You Are There" glimpse into the lives of 4 lads from Liverpool who have since made musical history.

AFI SIVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 4

Thursday June 19, 2008

A fairly light day for me at the fest as I took in one film, as well as a tribute to one of the most famous filmmakers on the planet. I started it off with another medical themed documentary for the 3rd day in a row. The east coast premiere of "My Mother's Garden" (***) is another brave family-made work where filmmaker Cynthia Lester excruciatingly documents her mother who suffers from "hoarders" disease. We observe the obsessive compulsive nature of Eugenia Lester's illness as her children feverishly work to clean-up her property and treat her illness. Her situation had grown so out of control that she was in danger of legally losing her home-where entrance through the windows was virtually the only way to get inside. Cynthia enlists the aid of her 2 brothers as they try and find a way to help their mom live a more constructive and healthy life-even though her illness had negatively affected each of them as they grew up in this cluttered environment. The film points out that Eugenia's illness is shared by millions in this country-many of which cannot afford the medications necessary to help treat the condition. It's a scary look into a condition that is rarely seen in such an intimate manner.

Each year, Silverdocs celebrates a documentary filmmaker by offering a symposium named in honor of the late great documentary filmmaker, Charles Guggenheim. This year's recipient is Spike Lee. After a wonderful montage of Lee's documentary work throughout the years, we are treated to an intimate conversation between himself and moderator Lisa Kennedy, film critic of The Denver Post. His body of work in the documentary field is approaching his narrative achievements as he revealed that he will be releasing in September a documentary about a day in the life of Kobe Bryant. Also, his documentary about Michael Jordan covering his last year in Chicago should be ready for Cannes next year. During the interview, he interestingly stated that he would love to see a documentary made about Martin Luther King, but he didn't feel that he would be adequate to film it. The discussion was followed by an extended promo of his upcoming war epic, "Miracle At St. Anna", the story of four black American soldiers who are members of the US Army as part of the all-black 92nd "Buffalo Soldier" Division stationed in Tuscany, Italy during World War II. Following the award ceremony, another tremendous reception was held across the street at The Discovery Channel building

AFI SIVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 3

Wednesday June 18, 2008

It was time to continue the theme of personal health journeys. So no better way than now to explore the question of what to do if you knew in advance that you had a genetic mutation that greatly increased your chances of contracting cancer years before it appears in your life. Director Joanna Rudnick produced & directed one of the most intense personal documents you'll ever experience. "In The Family" (*** 1/2) explores her own intimate dilemma of whether to wait or to take immediate action to have her ovaries and breasts removed in order to head off the inevitable. The mapping of the genome has opened up all kinds of research that included the finding that this particular mutation is passed from generation to generation-increasing the likelihood of obtaining both cancers from single digits to up to 85%. Joanna bravely takes us into her world, as well as others who are faced with the same questions, to painfully reveal how the decision they make affects everyone around them-not to mention their possible future generations. Also included into this mix is a no holds barred look into her intimate relationship with someone she begins dating after meeting him online. The filmmaker even touches on the economics of the situation by focusing on the company who has obtained a patent on the mutation and how that monopoly has affected many people who can't even afford to be tested. The film is scheduled to appear a part of the PBS P.O.V. series on October 1.

Next up was an intimate portrait of Dr. James Orbinski, winner of the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize as the head of Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF-Doctors Without Borders). Director Patrick Reed's haunting "Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma" (*** 1/2) follows the award winner as he returns years later to Somalia and Rwanda, 2 of the several war-torn countries he served during the period of their genocide while other care-takers were desperately fleeing for their lives. The filmmaker explores the dilemma Orbinski faces in dealing with his feelings of utter helplessness in the continual struggle of helping the wounded and the homeless in a world where humanitarianism is constantly being politicized. As a result, "humanitarian wars" have made many organizations think twice about going into these areas-making the existence of the MSF even more urgent and admirable.

From one doctor to another (and the two couldn't be more different!), I ended my day with the D.C. premiere of Academy Award winner, Alex Gibney's ("Taxi To The Dark Side" & "Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room") dazzling bio doc "Gonzo: The Life And Work Of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson" (****). The late ex-Rolling Stone scribe is given a humorous, rock-&-roll sendoff in this editing tour-de-force as Thompson's precarious life is depicted in rapid fire images, photos, interviews, and sound bytes galore as Gibney takes you into the fascinating life of the guy who put gonzo journalism into our psyche. Throw in a great sound track, film clips from Terry Gilliam's adaptation of "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas", interviews, and narrations of his work by Johnny Depp (who lived for a spell in the basement of Thompson's house) and you become swept up in the chaotic universe of Thompson's life-which ended with a self inflicted gunshot in 2005. Love him or hate him, you can't help but marvel at one of the most intriguing American characters of the past 60 years. The film is fittingly due to be released on July 4th.

AFI SILVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 2

Tuesday June 17, 2008

I go from last night's happy upbeat theme of Cirque Du Soleil and The Beatles to the sobering, controversial topic of Lyme Disease to open my first full day of films. "Under Our Skin" (*** 1/2), wonderfully directed by Andy Abrahams, is the definitive take on chronic disease that, as the film points out, is infecting over 200,00 additional cases a year-many more than AIDS, West Nile Virus, and Avian Flu combined. Taking over 4 years and shooting over 350 hours of footage, Abrahams follows 6 patients whose life has been severely altered by the infection. To make matters worse, the medical community has disturbingly chose to classify the disease as either non-existent or even psychosomatic-even though there is clear evidence that long term use of antibiotics can successfully treat the disease. Add to this the suspense the filmmaker creates as he follows several maverick physicians who risk their license when they recognize and apply the correct treatment but are thwarted by the medical board-who, themselves, appear to be controlled by conflict of interests and the insurance companies. All this adds up to a fascinating terrifying document about a disease that should be correctly treated and recognized but is tragically being swept under the rug because of financial interests.

Next up was the fascinating topic of a dictator being tried for war crimes, the D.C. premiere of "Milosevic On Trial" (***) . Director Michael Christoffersen takes us into the inner workings of this trial, which was the first time in history that a head of state was ever put on trial by an international court. From over 2,000 hours of trial footage and 250 hours of interviews, the filmmaker gives us a fascinating look into this 4 year trial of the "butcher of the Balkans" who chose to be his own counsel (he was actually a trained lawyer). The head of the former Yugoslavia used delaying tactics that lasted over 4 years until his sudden death just months before the trial's conclusion. You get a bird's eye glimpse into the goings on as you see this cunning dictator try to convince the world that the trial was illegal and that the deaths of over 125,000 people and the displacement of 3 million others was simply not his doing.

In the early morning fog on August 7, 1974, a 24 year old Frenchman, Philippe Petit, took 45 minutes and 8 walks on a high wire (at one point lying prone!) on a wire strung between the roofs of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. He was living out his dream that he first had as a pre-teen when he was in his dentist's office and saw an article about the towers even before they were built. Most people over 40 remember the event vividly as it was reported around the world. However, few people know the complete story of how the stunt was planned and finally enacted. In the D.C. premiere of James Marsh's masterful "Man On Wire" (****) (named after the remark on the police charging document), this story is now revealed. And what a story it is! Using Petit's own archival footage and effective reenactments (taking place, for the most part, while Petit and his cohorts were inside the WTC), the story is lovingly told using present day interviews from virtually everyone on the team. You see the "walks" he previously had done in France and Australia that first revealed to the planet his uncanny talent. And, you get inside the actual planning and buildup to the feat and the suspense created when they literally walked in front of a security guard on the upper floors to get to the stairwell with their equipment after hiding under a tarp for 3 hours. Told in a humorous style with an effective score throughout, this wonderful doc will have you spellbound while it relates one of the most amazing human endeavors ever accomplished. The additional poignancy of it happening on the World Trade Center only adds to the mythical nature of it all. The film has been picked up for distribution by Magnolia and is to be released later this summer. Don't miss this great film!

The themes were getting lighter (especially after the heavy start with Lyme Disease) when I wrapped up with the D.C. premiere of the musically oriented "Throw Down Your Heart" (** 1/2). Filmmaker Sasha Paladino follows his older brother, multiple Grammy award winner, banjo virtuoso, Bela Fleck as he travels to 4 regions of Africa to follow the roots of his instrument. Long thought of having its origins in southern America, Bela reveals that its basis were the unusual African string instruments still being used today. Along this journey, Bela meets and jams with locals and more renowned artists in each region he visits. As a musical document, the film is first rate as it constantly fills the air with rhythmic and melodic African sounds. You get to see and hear many of these string instruments that were the precursor of what we know as the banjo. However, the fault I had was, as a musician myself, I wanted to know more about the history of the unusual instruments being played throughout the film. There just wasn't enough historical substance presented to keep me interested. After the Q & A Bela was joined onstage for a neat mini-concert by one of the principal musicians he encountered along the way: Cheick Hamala Diabaté, a n’goni player-which was a nice way to end the day.

AFI SILVERDOCS FILM FESTIVAL-Day 1-Opening Night

Monday June 16, 2008

My love for independent films is equaled only by my love of documentaries. I am truly in my glory with the opening of the 6th annual AFI Silverdocs Film Festival-one of the preeminent documentary film festivals on the planet. Started in 2003, just months after the re-opening of the luxurious AFI Silver Theater in downtown Silver Spring Maryland (just outside Washington D.C.), this phenomenal event is the perfect way to kick off a summer which more often than not offers up mostly lame Hollywood blockbusters over the next 3 months. Some of the best times I've had in a darken theater in the last 5 years have been at this Festival. So, I can't wait to experience the variety of docs that will make their way from around the world to this 3 theater complex over the next 7 days. Festival director Patricia Finneran & Director of Programming, Sky Sitney, are about to present over 100 documentaries from 63 countries (!) that will go along way in driving home this year's theme "Think for yourself". And what a fabulous way to kick off the festivities by the U.S premier of "All Together Now" (*** 1/2), which details the extraordinary journey of how Cirque Du Soleil's "Love" came to be. Long time documentarian, Adrian Wills, has put together a dazzling work that captures the essence of what it was like for this company to obtain the Beatles' rights (virtually the only entity to do so) and the nearly 1 year journey to present it on stage at The Mirage in Las Vegas. Enlisting the help of the late great George Martin and his son, they literally took 28 songs from the Beatles' catalogue and then had the audacity to remix what was considered "The Holy Grail" of music. Wills begins the story detailing that the corroboration wouldn't have come to fruition if not for the vision of George Harrison, who was friends with Cirque founder Guy Lalberte, and then obtaining the cooperation of all the principals from the Apple family. What makes the behind-the-scenes even more fascinating is how the 2 remaining Ex-Beatles, Yoko, and George Harrison's widow, Olivia keep offering their input into the project, to the continual chagrin of Cirque director Dominic Champagne. When the opening night finally arrived in 2006, you see all of the principals in the audience dead on. (I literally got chills when I saw Paul singing along with Sgt. Pepper in his seat next to Ringo.) And you laugh when Paul, on more than one occasion reveals that he was amazed just how damn great this band is and how he actually wakes up to realize that he is only one of 4 people in the universe who can claim membership in this group! Wills does an amazing editing job that not only captures the intricacies of this, what I'm sure, is an amazing show, but it also includes a ton of stock footage of the Fab 4 that is craftily interwoven into the mix. The result is a music filled love letter to the greatest band ever. It will have you yearning to get the next flight out of town to Vegas. At the least, you will want to dust off your collection to relive the music that put the "pop" in pop music!The opening night festivities included a post-film panel discussion moderated by Bill Flanagan (EVP MTV Network) and included Wills, Champagne, & Jonathan Clyde (Producer and Director of Production from Apple Corps), as well as 4 Cirque Du Soleil performers. All this was followed by a first class reception hosted by the main sponsor of the festival, The Discovery Channel, in their spiffy digs across the street. Music was even provided by Matt White singing both originals and Beatles covers. A great way to start the festival!Come back over the next 7 days for daily updates that, hopefully, will bring you here to Silver Spring to experience, literally, the world through the eyes of talented filmmakers around the globe.

"Yella" ** 1/2 (89 minutes)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The latest offering by The Cinema Sunday club, was "Yella" written and directed by Christian Petzold. This German mystery (whom the filmmaker based on Herk Harvey’s 1962 cult classic "Carnival of Souls") stars Nina Hoss who plays a woman being relentlessly stalked by her estranged husband (Hinnerk Schonemann). She is about to start a new life in another town
when she reluctantly agrees to hitch a ride with him to catch a train. At this point he decides to end their lives together-literally and figuratively. Without going further with plot spoilers, let me say that I had this one figured out from the start. However, despite this, the atmosphere established by filmmaker worked to keep me interested-despite the fact that several business scenes go on way too long. I marginally recommend it for the splendid acting by Ms. Hoss (who won who won a German best actress award) as she effectively conveys a fine sense of dread throughout.